The Sunday Times

August 28th, 2011

I didn’t need a politician to mentor my Norland nanny

Mentoring means sharing social capital, to use two post-riot buzzwords. Families rich in social capital hardly realise their advantages; their contacts, their confidence, their know-how, their sense of entitlement, their sharp elbows, their social skills and their understanding of how to work the system. Everyone could use some of that but a lot of people have none of it.

All the same, when politicians talk of mentoring dysfunctional families in person, it is really rather funny. There cannot be many problem families who would welcome a grinning cabinet minister on their doorstep, keen as mustard to do them good.

The coalition government has announced that some of its ministers and advisers will be offering themselves as mentors, as reported in this newspaper last week; they will adopt some workless families to set them straight. They mean to set an example to others by volunteering to become “family champions”. But do-gooding is not always welcome: it needs to be done with sensitivity and tact, qualities for which politicians are not universally admired.

I couldn’t help thinking of the Jane Austen matron, who set herself to bullying her unlucky villagers into peace and prosperity. Imagine having Jacqui Smith, the former Labour home secretary — who has indeed already decided to improve the moral fibre of two prisoners by allowing them to repaint her house — standing on your doormat, determined to show you a better way. It might provoke a riot.

All the same, a public commitment to the idea of sharing social capital is long overdue. Informal mentoring is as old as civilisation, but this new organised, political initiative is the idea of a social entrepreneur called Emma Harrison (of A4e — Action for Employment). The only thing wrong with it, as far as I can see, is involving politicians. That, I am afraid, is usually the kiss of death.

What’s needed is for more ordinary people to adopt a person or a family, in the spirit not of a big society but of a generous society. Perhaps there is room somewhere for a formal scheme such as Harrison’s under which people are trained how to help the dysfunctional manage their money, deal with red tape and get up in the morning. But I can’t help feeling that mentoring is best done personally and informally, without political control or right-on training.

That may produce imperfect and unequal results, but it goes with the crooked timber of humanity, and for that reason is much more likely to succeed. Mentoring — meaning mentoring outside one’s own tribe — should become a convention. It should be something that people feel they ought to do.

The fact is — like sex before Philip Larkin’s 1963 — a lot of mentoring goes on already. I had no contacts in the world of journalism when I started work, but I have been generously mentored by a brilliant stranger who has become a close friend. Without her advice, I would have fallen beside the rocky wayside of journalism — uninformed, unencouraged and underconfident.

I have even been a mentor myself. When my first baby was born and I went back to full-time work, I employed a live-in Norland nanny, complete with uniform and white gloves. She came at a cheap rate as she was still a probationer, and had to work for nine months in a family before graduating. She was not well-off, as many Norlanders are; she had left school at 16 with a couple of GCSEs, and had to work for a year in the Norland kitchens to help pay for her course.

It soon became clear to us that she was very bright; on her side, getting to know us and our university friends convinced her she could easily do as well or better and we began to talk about what she might achieve. She was interested in sciences and maths so we encouraged her to start with a couple of GCSEs: then I began working from home, she went on living with us as a part-time Norland au pair, and started maths and science A-levels at a nearby college.

The college was the first obstacle. Our nanny finally admitted that the maths course was no good. The students took no interest and the useless teacher didn’t always turn up. That was my mentoring moment: following my husband’s precept that the only real function of middle-class, middle-aged women is to make a fuss and get their way, I rang the nearest private school — the legendary St Paul’s girls’ school — asked to speak to the head of maths, and persuaded that kind-hearted man to give our heroine private teaching at our house. “I never knew,” said our nanny afterwards, delighted, “what good teaching could be.”

Triumphs followed — superb A-level results, a scholarship, entry to a top London medical school, a first, and the Norland uniform has long since been swapped for the white coat of a distinguished research virologist. It can happen.

My few other attempts have not been quite so successful. With some I didn’t seem to be able to help at all. And according to friends who have tried to mentor brutalised teenagers who have come out of council care, there are some people who are damaged well beyond amateur help. But my few small efforts haven’t always been useless. Consciously I was trying to do something in a small way to repay a debt to a generous benefactress, a rich single lady who had given my widowed mother a great deal of help in bringing up her four children.

Unconsciously, perhaps, I was following my mother’s example. In middle age she became quite well known locally as the person to go and see with any problems with O-levels, A-levels, university entrance, filling in application forms and for careers advice, for which she had a gift. She also, without comment, did her best to encourage people, especially if nobody else had done so.

Across the country there are countless people who quietly try in ways they can manage to help people get on. They wouldn’t see themselves as mentors and they probably wouldn’t consider that they been sharing their social capital, any more than Molière’s bourgeois gentilhomme realised that he had been talking prose all this life. They certainly haven’t been trained and they would go out of their way to avoid guidelines and politicians, and they probably wouldn’t feel inclined to emulate a minister, but in their way they constitute the big society that David Cameron has been talking about.

All they need is encouragement and a little recognition and perhaps an introduction to someone who could use their help, where otherwise they might be afraid of intruding. Throw dysfunctional families a jobs lifeline, Letters, page 26